There it is, Five Corners — our Five Corners. It’s not the most elegant intersection on the Island. It’s rather scruffy, in fact. But, recently, in an effort to clarify where cars should go, the Town of Tisbury added a highway directional sign, actually two signs, one above another, atop a field of concrete brick pavers on the Post Office side of the road. Now every time I pass by I think of the hundreds of people on this Island who spend thousands of hours every month trying to keep Martha’s Vineyard special.
There are so many private organizations whose mission is to save land, preserve space and keep the Island’s history alive. On the public side the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank does a brilliant job of purchasing open land, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has gotten its sea legs, with commissioners, some recent, some who have been on board for a longer time, giving of their time and talent to protect the Island.
Why then do two small traffic signs trigger such passionate thoughts of preservation every time I pass through Five Corners? An acquaintance of mine said recently that, despite all the efforts of so many people, she thought Martha’s Vineyard was “melting.” Every day it looks more like anyplace else, said she.
These new signs are an excellent example of why. They’re green with white lettering, the same green and same typeface that are used on traffic signs throughout the federal highway system. Many years ago the United States Department of Transportation decided to make highway signs uniform across the country. The lettering and various sizes were proscribed for us all. There could be exceptions, of course, but if you’re looking for an exit on I-95 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, or getting off I-70 somewhere in Illinois you’ll be looking for a green sign with white lettering. The Five Corners signs also sit on a rather vast expanse of imitation brick paving. This is the same imitation brick used in thousands of crosswalks across the country.
There is nothing about the signs or the swath of imitation brick that tells anyone that Martha’s Vineyard is special. Ironically, though the signs purport to tell a motorist how to head up State Road toward Aquinnah or bear left to Edgartown, everybody knows this already. One really can get to Edgartown in either direction, but everyone has known that too, for perhaps three hundred years. For a first-time visitor, ironically, the signs aren’t big enough. The ferry already has disgorged your car, there is a scrum of traffic, and before the signs are legible you’re either in the left lane bearing left, or in the right lane heading uphill. If we were really serious about this, the signs should be much bigger.
We have “signitis.” Our own street corner in Vineyard Haven has ten separate signs. My wife and I recently returned home after doing something or other in Aquinnah. We’d left before sunset and were returning after dark. We both started noticing the number of reflectors. For the fun of it, I asked her to count how many she saw. She stopped at five hundred. The diamonds on the telephone poles were the most interesting specimens. Presumably they are there to help motorists avoid the poles. But, dozens of trees and mailboxes sit closer to the road, and they aren’t illuminated. With this rationale shouldn’t we light up everything?
Signs and reflectors are but symbols of how we treat our public ways on the Vineyard. For years, if I had a first-time visitor in the car, I’d slow down going up-Island as we passed the Tashmoo Overlook. “Eyes right,” I’d say. Now the overlook looks like a rest stop on the Kansas Turnpike. The roadway itself is poorly designed. The great swath of pavement on the inboard side of the curve is an open invitation for motorists to take a short cut through the turn, and they do. The granite curbs bordering the overlook aren’t rural, and the barriers, keeping us from the view, are the same standard galvanized-steel barriers found on every major road in America. Several days ago, as I passed the overlook, a semi-trailer truck had parked there. It is no longer a prized view, more like just a rest stop.
On the other hand, there have been small triumphs, and they shouldn’t go unnoticed. A number of West Tisbury residents gathered a while ago to protest the repaving of Music street and Panhandle Road. The work was to include removing four one hundred-year-old trees. At the meeting they learned that, of course, it wasn’t really essential to remove the trees, just easier, so after an agreement that the trees wouldn’t be touched, the repaving went ahead. Chilmark voted not to widen South Road, and that decision has had a major positive impact on Chilmark’s character. (Unfortunately the State then proceeded to line the roadway with the same steel barriers that make the Tashmoo Overlook so ordinary.)
These small triumphs aren’t the norm. Why does the West Tisbury fire station have an enormous parking lot in front? The same number of spaces would have fit just as easily behind the building. Had the fire house been moved closer to the road we would have seen it immediately as more rural. The station and the parking lot now look like they could be in Fall River or Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
I also wince when I go past the new Tisbury parking lot opposite the ferry terminal. That too, could have been so much simpler, and better designed. At this writing, there are actually ideas afoot to turn half the Tisbury elementary school playground into a parking lot, and to replace the town tennis courts on Church street with a parking lot, as well.
How do we get a better grasp of our roadways and public places? How do we make their maintenance and future part of the public debate? What can we do to make Martha’s Vineyard the place so many people want it to be?
Craig Whitaker is an architect and urban planner with a practice in New York and a house in Vineyard Haven.